STONINGTON — Tolls, regionalization and paid family leave were among the topics raised by residents during Sen. Heather Somers’ Community Conversation at the police station Thursday night.
About 25 people attended the session, which Somers called an “informal town meeting.”
“Can tolls be stopped?” was the first question, from Glenn Frishman, a member of the Stonington Board of Finance. He was reacting to Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal to toll cars and trucks, originally in 82 locations but recently reduced to 54.
“I don’t know if tolls can be stopped per say but I think there’s a recognition that the idea that tolls are going to save everything is just false,” Somers said. “For me there are other ways we can fix the current situation without putting tolls on.”
She argued that it was illegal to toll only trucks — Lamont's original idea — except on newly built bridges, of which Connecticut has none.
Tolling would be hardest on the poorest residents of the state, she said.
“It hurts the most vulnerable the most,” she said.
“In my district, I have people who travel from Plainfield to work at Electric Boat and they’re the ones who travel the furthest and they’ll have to pay the tolls every 6 miles,” she asserted.
Somers also addressed the Lamont’s administration's idea of regionalizing school districts.
“This bill has been entered for about the last 20 years but this is the first year it’s been brought up because of the makeup in the legislature right now,” she said.
With regionalization, administration costs could be saved through economies of scale, she said.
“Look at how much you would save if you had one superintendent for all of these towns versus a superintendent in each individual town,” she said. The same concept could be applied to principals, assistant principals and other administrative staff, she said.
But, within the area of one probate court district, she said, the needs of schools vary widely.
One unidentified resident said that a one-size-fits-all approach to school administrators would have negative consequences. “The superintendent is reflective of the philosophy of the community,” he said.
Somers said she was not a proponent of regionalization and would testify against it.
“There’s a lot of pushback because people decide where they want to live based on the school system,” she said.
She said she was also against Lamont's paid family leave proposal, as written, because paying into it would be mandatory for everyone except state employees, who would still be able to use the benefit.
The numbers simply didn’t add up, she said.
“It would take about 84 people to pay in for one person’s leave, so the numbers do not work, ” she said. “To make up the difference, the state will either raise the workers’ deduction amounts or mandate employers to match the amounts.”
Somers said many businesses already offer paid leave options for their employees through short-term disability.
Another option would be to set up a Health Savings Account to deduct pretax income from each employee. If the employer matched the amount, it would be a tax deduction for the business.
“I do think that if we are going to pursue paid family leave that we have to provide options for people,” she said. “I do not like mandating out of people’s paychecks.”
Somers said she had also received numerous calls from people close to retirement who do not want to pay in.
“Also, businesses are strongly opposed because they have other options that are less costly, or they’ve had them for years, and they feel the government should not be mandating it.”
Board of Finance member Lynn Young asked Somers what the state’s "endgame" was.
“Are we going to be the first state to file for bankruptcy? Where is this going?” Young asked. “There is no way out of this. It’s getting made worse every single day. There’s an elephant in the room that no one will shoot."
Somers replied, “We have a new governor that says he’s a business person that has promised have Connecticut a different Connecticut than it was when he took over. We need to give him the benefit of the doubt and see if he can do it.”
After the meeting, Somers said she did not sugarcoat the state’s problems for her constituents.
“I think it’s important for representatives or senators to be honest about where we are. If we know where we are in the landscape then we can collectively try to come up with ideas about how to fix it,” she said. “Obviously this did not happen overnight, this has been going on for 30 years but now we’re at crunch time, so we have to be honest with people about where we are.”